St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
October 5, 2014
Year A, Proper 22: The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
This past Wednesday evening we had the first session of our fall book group. By our count, about twenty of us are reading a wonderful little book called Being Christian by Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury.
About fifteen of us came to the first session where we had a lively conversation about the first chapter of the book that covers Baptism.
In that chapter, Williams reminds us that “for many centuries the Church has thought of Jesus as anointed by God to a live out a threefold identity: that of prophet, priest and king.”
And sure enough, today’s gospel lesson focuses on Jesus the prophet.
What is a prophet?
We tend to think of prophets as people who predict the future. And, of course, there’s some truth in that.
But, prophets have a much more important job than predicting the future.
Williams writes, “The prophet…is somebody whose role is always to be challenging the community to be what it is meant to be – to live out the gift God has given to it.”
We may not always think of him this way, but Jesus was, among many other things, definitely a prophet. Through his teaching and his healing, Jesus reminded the community to be what it was meant to be.
Which sounds straightforward enough. Except, almost always, the community did not and does not want to be reminded of what it is meant to be.
For example, let’s take a look at today’s gospel passage where we pick up right where we left off last week.
Jesus and his closest disciples have arrived in Jerusalem where they have attracted a good bit of attention – not all of it positive.
A crowd waving palms and placing their cloaks on the ground greeted Jesus as he entered the capital city.
He goes to the Temple – to the heart of Jewish life – and chases out the people who were conducting business there, reminding everyone that the temple was meant to be a house of prayer.
We’re told that, right there at the Temple, Jesus heals the sick and the lame.
And, if you were here last week, you may remember that the chief priests and elders are not happy. Apparently they don’t want to be reminded by this teacher from Galilee of what they’re meant to be.
Instead, they want to know where – or from whom – Jesus is getting this authority.
That dispute continues today as Jesus tells another parable.
It’s a sad little story – an allegory, actually – about God, the leaders of Israel, the prophets and Jesus.
The point of the parable is that over the centuries God has sent prophets to Israel. And, over and over again, the religious leaders have usually rejected these prophets, abused them and even had them killed.
And now, at last, God has sent another prophet - his own Son - and the religious leaders are treating him the same way they treated the earlier prophets.
Jesus the prophet is getting the same kind of treatment that most other prophets get.
Yet, God continues to send us prophets.
And, every once in a while, we encounter a prophet who really manages to get through – who really does remind us of who we are meant to be – who really reminds us of who we really are.
Yesterday we honored one of those great prophets, Francis of Assisi, with our annual animal blessing.
I love the animal blessing, though we run the risk of turning Francis into a cute little man who was only interested in preaching to the birds.
In fact, Francis was one of our greatest prophets.
He lived in the late 1100s and early 1200s, a time when the church had accumulated great wealth and worldly power – a time when the church had almost forgotten the Jesus who was poor, who challenged us to give away our possessions, who turned the other cheek, who hung out with the wrong kinds of people.
And then along comes Francis.
He had known the comforts of wealth but, after a powerful spiritual experience, rejected it all to the shock and dismay of his family.
Francis chose a life of radical poverty and simplicity that was in stark contrast to the fabulous wealth and enormous power enjoyed by the popes and the cardinals and the rest of the chief priests and elders.
Francis remained a loyal son of the church, respecting the church’s authority, but through his example – not really through words – but by just actually living out the gospel – he reminded the Christians of his time and place of who they were meant to be – Francis reminded them of who they really were.
And, all these centuries later, the simplicity and joy of Francis still remind us of what we’re here for, still reminds us of the gift God has given us.
At this point, we may be feeling all warm and fuzzy. After all, who doesn’t love St. Francis?
We may even be thinking of other Christians, past and present, who have been prophets reminding us through their lives and example who we are meant to be – who we really are.
But, in his book, Rowan Williams gives us the rather scary news that through our baptism we Christians are called to be prophets too.
We are meant to be prophets who look around the church and ask, “Have you forgotten what you’re here for?” “Have you forgotten the gift God gave you?”
We are called to ask those questions of the church. And we are called to ask and challenge one another – not in a nagging and annoying way – but in a loving way - to be who we are meant to be – to be who we really are.
That doesn’t mean that we’re supposed to pointing fingers at people who are doing things that we think they shouldn’t be doing.
Although there are times when we are called to speak up and take a public stand, recognizing that we may have to pay a price, most of the time we prophets of St. Paul’s are not called to condemn people for, say, breaking one or more of the Ten Commandments.
No, like Francis, we are meant to be prophets through how we live our lives.
When we love each other, when we forgive one another, when we give to the poor and to support our work together, when we hang out with the wrong kinds of people, when we welcome absolutely everybody to our beautiful old church…
When we live like Jesus then we will be prophets. Not everyone is going to like us, but we will remind people of who we humans are meant to be – we will remind people of who we humans really are.
When we live lives of love and service, we will be prophets. Like many prophets before us, we may be rejected, but we will remind people of what we’re here for – reminding people of the gifts God has given us.
We are called to be – we are baptized to be – prophets.
May it be so.